Death From Above: Confessions of a Killer Drone Operator

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The National Security Agency investigative committee questions former U.S. drone pilot Brandon Bryant in Berlin on October 15. Bernd von Jutrczenka/AP

In 2009, not long after his historic election and seven years after the first U.S. drone strike, President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. “Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war,” he said. “That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend.”

Since then, however, deadly U.S. drone strikes have increased sharply, as have doubts about the program’s reliability and effectiveness. The latest criticism comes from Drone, a new documentary about the CIA’s covert drone war, which opens in theaters nationally on Friday. To help promote the film and inveigh against the agency’s drone program, along with its military counterpart, four former operators—Stephen Lewis, Michael Haas, Cian Westmoreland and Brandon Bryant—appeared at a press conference in Manhattan on Thursday. All are Air Force veterans, though some worked on behalf of the military, others on behalf of the CIA.

Drone operators' work is often classified, and speaking out can lead to veiled threats and prosecution. Which is why for years Bryant was the only drone veteran who openly rebuked the drone war. But his persistence and his appearance in the film, the other three say, inspired them to come forward. On multiple occasions, the men say they complained to their superiors about their concerns to no avail. Now they hope their stories and the movie will pressure the government to be more transparent about how it selects and kills its targets.

The White House and the Pentagon argue that drones are precise weapons that have caused few civilian deaths and killed key leaders of groups that want to harm the United States and its allies. In 2013, Obama tried to safeguard the system by insisting on approving every new name on the “kill list,” which various intelligence agencies compile.

But the operators say their experiences bolster reports that found drone strikes kill far more civilians than the government admits. These deaths, they argue, wind up helping militant groups recruit new members and hurt the U.S.’s long-term security.

As of February, U.S. drone strikes killed 2,500 people in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since 2009, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit. But that figure doesn’t include drone strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, war zones where the use of lethal drone strikes has been more common. In 2013, Obama said the U.S. would use a drone only to kill “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and when there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

But various nongovernment investigations into the number of civilian casualties suggest otherwise. The reason: The government classifies unidentified casualties as “enemies” unless evidence shows something to the contrary. The operators add that faulty intelligence often leads to unintended civilian deaths. “You could wind up targeting someone who is totally innocent,” says Westmoreland, who believes he killed civilians, as do the three other operators.

The result, the operators say, is the U.S. kills its enemies, only to give rise to a new generation that hates America. “There are 15-year-olds today who haven’t lived a day without war, without drones flying overhead,” says Westmoreland. "You have expats in other countries, and they’re watching [what’s happening at home]...and that could radicalize them.”

But the operators argue that even targeting America’s enemies with deadly drones is problematic. Bryant, the longtime critic of the program, says he was a part of the mission to take down Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and senior Al-Qaeda recruiter, whom the CIA killed in Yemen with a drone strike in 2011. Bryant quit his job as a drone operator before the fatal strike against Awlaki, and says the mission was part of his decision. But he says many in his squadron were disturbed when they heard they’d be hunting an American citizen. “We were told that this man was a traitor to the United States and that he deserved to die,” Bryant says. “[But] the constitution says even a traitor deserves a fair and free trial in front of a jury of his peers.”

The CIA declined to comment on the mission and the accusations of the operators. 

Haas, who served alongside Bryant during the same period, says to meet the growing demand, the Air Force lowered its standards. “We were getting low quality people,” he says. “They just wanted seat fillers.”

The Air Force disagrees. “Our remotely piloted aircraft operators perform a critically important mission that contributes significantly to national defense and global security,” says Air Force spokesman Christopher Karns. “They are professional and comply with applicable law, policies, and adhere to very exacting procedures. No doubt, the demands placed on the RPA force are tremendous. A great deal of effort is being taken to bring about relief, stabilize the force and sustain a vital warfighter capability.”

As a drone instructor, however, Haas says he watched as the mentality of many of his students shifted from a focus on gathering intelligence to killing. In one instance, Haas says he was overseeing a student, who insisted that the people he was watching looked suspicious. When Haas asked why, the student responded: “They’re just up to no good.” Haas pulled the student from the mission and failed him.

Short on operators, his superiors asked him to explain his decision. “I don’t want a person in that seat with that mentality with their hands on those triggers,” Haas says. “It’s a dangerous scenario for everyone to have someone with that bloodlust.” But the student’s detached outlook wasn’t as important as training new recruits. Hass was ultimately punished for failing the student and barred from teaching for 10 days.

Dealing with bureaucracy, however, was far easier than the job itself; the operators say it involved sitting for hours in a dark bunker. Haas says he took drugs on the job to help him get through the experience. “In the last six months I was in, taking little bumps of bath salts when I woke up, escaping to the bathroom [for more] and go instruct a ride,” he says. “In my mind, I was thinking I was sharper and more clear, but in honesty I was just spazzing out.” He estimates that nearly a dozen others in his squadron were doing the same. “If upper command knew about it, they didn’t care,” he says. “They didn’t do anything about it.”

The Air Force declined to comment on these incidents, saying only: “Airmen are expected to adhere to established standards of behavior. Behavior found to be inconsistent with Air Force core values is appropriately looked into and if warranted, disciplinary action is taken.”

All four men say they rejected large bonuses, ranging from $50,000 to $109,000, and instead chose to leave the Air Force. The men also say their experience left them with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “It’s not about if; it’s about when” says Lewis. “And when it hits you, it’s hell.”

Whether or not drone operators have PTSD is controversial. Some say the disorder affects only those who’ve experienced physical combat. But the operators were adamant. “It’s not fun to deal with psychological scars when you have no physical scars to back them up,” says Bryant. “Veterans are not getting the health care they need in general,” including drone operators.

Bryant says his PTSD makes it hard for him to hold down a job, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to take away his benefits. “People say that they support their troops, but they let our politicians take away what we earned,” says Bryant. “We killed for you. We have died and been maimed for you.” The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Some proponents of the drone war say it allows the U.S. to hunt down its enemies without losing American lives. But by distancing soldiers from the battlefield, the operators suggest the people carrying out strikes may become even more desensitized to killing than their counterparts on the front lines. On some occasions, Haas says operators referred to children as “fun-sized terrorists” or “TITS,” terrorists in training. “You did anything you could to remove their humanity,” he says, “and in the process, you lost a bit of your own.”